The machines are coming.
In the course of talking about The Glass Wall, success strategies for women at work and businesses that mean business, some people have told my co-author Kathryn and me that there really is no need to be anxious about gender inequality in senior management. They speak comfortably about the rise of millennials in the workforce solving any gender balance issues.
It seems true for millennials as a generation that the idea that gender is binary is out of date. Indeed, using male and female as synonyms for men and women is offensive in this respect already as you can self-assign as a man or a woman but this may be different from your biological origins. For older generations this idea may still seem controversial, but for millennials, now a huge part of the workforce, it’s how life is.
If this is true then surely the boards of companies will sort themselves out, I have been told. Gender will become a less relevant matter. One media company CEO has in fact placed a bet with me to that effect.
I’m obviously not convinced about this. For decades women have been told that the matter will resolve itself and with just 9.6% of FTSE 100 boards with executive women directors and more CEOs of those companies named Dave than women CEOs, it certainly has not so far. The reason for this is actually I think that the situation isn’t about the gender you identify with at all, but about power and how you use it.
Our research for the book suggests that boys get more training in fighting and pushing themselves forward and girls get more direction in playing nicely together. Boys in the UK participate in more sports for longer at school than girls. Culture directs women to believe that self-deprecation is necessary for peer acceptance. Men are meant to show off.
Culture takes a huge amount of time to change. While deferential attitudes to politicians and policemen may have shifted (we don’t live in the world of Dixon of Dock Green these days) there is still huge deference in organisations to the boss, to the man who can fire you, and hierarchies are naturally formed in a pyramid structure down from that man (it is still usually a man). Yuval Harari however thinks that there is one thing that is changing heritage power structures at work. Unfortunately for humankind, it is not a shift towards gender parity or even to a flatter less hierarchical way of working. It is a shift of power out of the hands of humans altogether.
Harari says that the net, artificial intelligence and biotechnology are moving so fast that we just can’t keep up. "You’d be surprised how many seemingly powerful people deny having the power to change things, and don’t even know who has such power… the world is changing so fast due to technology. Yet technology doesn’t obey the tradition power structure, hence presidents, generals and tycoons may genuinely feel that somebody is pulling the rug from under their feet." His theory is that while people are worrying about last century’s political issues (left versus right, socialism and capitalism, democracy and authoritarianism) we’re worrying about the wrong things. What we should be considering is how on earth we legislate for any control over the coming revolutions in cyber space.
So the one factor that may step change the workplace and society in general is not a release of power by men to women because of a generation shift. It might be that we will shift to a gender-neutral meritocracy finally in the face of the cyber revolution.
Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom.